U.S. con­fi­dence of killing al-Bagh­dadi shat­tered af­ter at least 3 failed at­tempts

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ROWAN SCARBOROUGH

A spe­cial in­tel­li­gence ad­viser to Army Gen. David H. Pe­traeus dur­ing the 2007 troop surge says the ter­ror­ist leader now rul­ing over large swaths of Iraq and forc­ing Chris­tians to con­vert to Is­lam has long been the most elu­sive big game for the U.S.

“We had at least three times when we thought we killed [Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi],” said re­tired Army Col. Derek Har­vey. “At least three times.”

As an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, Mr. Har­vey ac­quired near-myth­i­cal sta­tus: He spent two decades study­ing Iraq, Sad­dam Hus­sein’s regime and the com­plex tribal net­works that form the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal fab­ric. He had the ear of the top brass.

“Best mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer I ever knew,” said re­tired Army Gen. John Keane, who helped de­vise the surge strat­egy of oc­cu­py­ing neigh­bor­hoods and pulling Sunni fight­ers to the Amer­i­can side.

The fail­ure to kill al-Bagh­dadi be­fore he rose to the top and un­leashed a June of­fen­sive that snatched towns and vil­lages was un­der­scored again last week. Fixed on Baghdad, his ter­ror­ist army — the Is­lamic State — launched its first car bomb as­sault, his fa­vorite method, since the net­work broke out of the city of Mo­sul last month.

Af­ter U.S. troops ex­ited Iraq in 2011, al-Bagh­dadi’s men per­fected the use of car bombs as killing ma­chines. Last week, six car bombs were det­o­nated in and around Baghdad. The In­sti­tute for the Study of War said as many as 90 peo­ple were killed.

Mean­while, the in­sti­tute said, al-Bagh­dadi is try­ing to weave his harsh vi­sion of Is­lam into the fab­ric of Iraqi life with pro­nounce­ments on women’s dress, mar­riage and prop­erty rights.

On Sun­day, the vast ma­jor­ity of Chris­tians in Mo­sul had fled to Kur­dish-pro­tected ar­eas ahead of an Is­lamic State dead­line for them to con­vert to Is­lam, pay a tax or face death. Mil­i­tants be­gan oc­cu­py­ing churches and homes of Chris­tians who fled, Mo­sul res­i­dents told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

Mr. Har­vey, now direc­tor of re­search at the Univer­sity of South Florida’s Global Ini­tia­tive on Civil So­ci­ety and Con­flict, was in­serted into Baghdad af­ter the 2003 in­va­sion. He re­turned for the 2007 troop surge to be­come Gen. Pe­traeus’ right­hand man for in­tel­li­gence and un­der­stand­ing the Sunni in­sur­gency, of which al-Bagh­dadi, then known as Abu Du’a, was a ris­ing star.

In an in­ter­view, Mr. Har­vey dis­cussed why al-Bagh­dadi was re­leased from U.S. cus­tody in 2004 and the trade­craft he has since used to evade cap­ture.

He con­cludes that al-Bagh­dadi, who heads the Is­lamic State, is su­pe­rior to al Qaeda in Iraq founder Abu Musab Zar­qawi and bet­ter than Osama bin Laden in some re­spects.

“The suc­cess he’s had and his longevity are re­mark­able,” Mr. Har­vey said.

Dur­ing the early days of the Sunni in­sur­gency, the U.S. picked up al-Bagh­dadi in Fe­bru­ary 2004 in Fal­lu­jah. In their pos­ses­sion was a mur­der­ous ji­hadist and mul­lah com­mit­ted to both Zar­qawi and bin Laden. The prob­lem was that the com­mand did not have a cen­tral­ized data­base from which re­view boards could read all about him.

“What we did not have was good de­tainee pack­ages on those folks that pro­vided cir­cum­stances — why they were ar­rested, who they were ar­rested with,” Mr. Har­vey said. “It was a real fail­ing of the pro­ce­dures.”

By De­cem­ber 2004, al-Bagh­dadi’s re­view board had no choice but to re­lease him un­con­di­tion­ally, the Pen­tagon said. Within months, as in­tel­li­gence started to im­prove, the com­mand dis­cov­ered that Abu Du’a was one of the most vi­cious Zar­qawi op­er­a­tives.

In 2005, U.S. forces fired a mis­sile on a house in north­ern Iraq and then is­sued a press re­lease say­ing he was likely killed. A week later, they found out he was not.

Mr. Har­vey said that hap­pened again — another pre­ci­sion weapon on a house they were sure held al-Bagh­dadi, but he was not there. Then there was a di­rect raid on a house based on the sig­nal from a com­mu­ni­ca­tion de­vice he sup­pos­edly was us­ing.

“Who­ever was hold­ing the hand­set was killed,” Mr. Har­vey said. Again, it was not al-Bagh­dadi. “Clearly, we didn’t have him.”

How so elu­sive? Mr. Har­vey said alBagh­dadi prac­tices ex­cel­lent spy­craft, per­haps learned from Sad­dam Hus­sein’s in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tives who have joined him. Al-Bagh­dadi passes off cell­phones af­ter lim­ited use and dis­penses fake in­for­ma­tion about his where­abouts.

In 2010, he tricked the al­lies again. The coali­tion an­nounced on state TV the ar­rest of Abu Du’a in Fal­lu­jah and, thus, the end of al Qaeda in Iraq, which he then ran. Whomever they cap­tured was not Abu Du’a.

The cur­rent score­card — imprisoned and re­leased, thought to have been killed at least three times, and thought to have been ar­rested once.

“We would look at him as a highly skilled ad­ver­sary with some di­ver­sion as­pects to how he or­ches­trates his move­ments,” said Mr. Har­vey. “Send­ing false sig­nals. Telling cer­tain peo­ple he would be at that place when in fact he would not be at that site.

“He has re­lied on some highly skilled for­mer Iraqi in­tel­li­gence folks that have some good trade­craft skills they brought to the or­ga­ni­za­tion and to him,” the ter­ror­ist hunter said.

Mr. Har­vey said if al-Bagh­dadi is to be liq­ui­dated, it most likely will have to come from a ri­val ter­ror­ist group or from Iraqi Sun­nis who sided with the U.S. in elim­i­nat­ing al Qaeda in Iraq.

More than 100,000 Sun­nis joined the “Awak­en­ing.” It might have to hap­pen again.

“That’s the way you get af­ter this prob­lem in the end,” Mr. Har­vey said. “Un­less there is more pres­sure to con­tain his op­er­at­ing en­vi­ron­ment, he’s go­ing to have more free­dom and can hide and op­er­ate at the same time.”


Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi, leader of the Is­lamic State, prac­tices spy­craft that in­cludes pass­ing off cell­phones af­ter lim­ited use and dis­pens­ing fake in­for­ma­tion about his where­abouts.

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